Case Discussion: Inconclusive institutional investigation into authorship dispute

The case we are highlighting this month involves an escalating authorship dispute as well as management of the post publication correction process Inconclusive institutional investigation into authorship dispute: 18-07. Cases brought to the COPE Forum are often complex and involve multiple problems, which is the case here.

Case summary

After publication of an article, Author A contacted the journal asking to correct their surname. Journal procedures required the editor to request agreement from all authors for the required erratum to change the name, which resulted in an accusation by Author B that Author A did not really qualify as an author and requested removal of Author A from the article. The editor has legal proof of Author A’s correct name but does not have complete information from all authors on their contributions to the work. As the corresponding author, Author B insists on his right to have the final say on the authorship list. The editor contacted the institution where the work was conducted and where Author B is affiliated; Author A and some of the other authors have since left that institution. The institutional investigation only contacted those authors, including Author B, who remain at the institution and concurred with the opinion of Author B. The institution stated they were not allowed to contact the other authors, including Author A, who have moved to other institutions. The editor is concerned that the investigation by the institution was inadequate because it did not contact the complaining Author A.


Case discussion

The Forum advised the editor there were two, separate issues involved: 1) a name change and 2) an authorship dispute. The first issue is easily corrected by an erratum/corrigendum, whereas the second issue requires an adequate institutional investigation.

Authorship disputes remain one of the most common ethical issues faced by journal editors of scholarly publications. As such, Authorship and Contributorship are areas where resources are continually evolving. Authorship disputes are also an issue where journal editors and publishers must rely on the authors themselves and their institutions to adjudicate the disagreements. Most of the related cases emphasize the point that institutional investigations are the only way to proceed; however, in this case, the editor did not think the investigation was adequate. Editors are at a disadvantage when an institutional investigation is not adequate; in this case, since Author B’s institution did not contact authors outside of their institution, there is a reasonable assumption that the decision was made based on incomplete information.

There is also the possibility that this journal editor could contact the institution where Author A now works and ask for an investigation. That was not discussed among the COPE Forum, however, and the effort might produce another insufficient investigation, which would leave the editor in the same position.

A common thread through similar cases where an institutional investigation is not available or is inadequate is the need to escalate the case to a regional or national authority if one is available. That was the advice in this case. Editors may not know who to contact in some cases, which was the subject of a recent article in the November Digest about the newly formed Association of Research Integrity Officers.

Two common suggestions among the 136 cases in COPE’s database that relate to authorship and contributorship disputes are using specific authorship criteria (such as the ICMJE, CRediT, or discipline-specific criteria) and providing clear guidelines to authors about what is and is not acceptable. It can be important to have authors state specifically their contributions to the work at the time of manuscript submission, and authors need to know exactly what is expected of them in the submission process.

It seems that this journal’s process for encouraging and ensuring accuracy and transparency of author contributions to the work was insufficient. To avoid authorship disputes, journals should have and enforce requirements for disclosure of contributions. A new COPE flowchart on organizing the editorial office to comply with core practices urges the concurrent development of comprehensive guidelines for authors and of internal processes to verify compliance with those guidelines. Without adequate enforcement, well developed policies will not be of any use in preventing future disputes.

Problems arising with an article prior to publication can be handled by holding that article until the situation is resolved. When the problem occurs post-publication, there is a need to correct the literature in an appropriate and timely manner. In this case, the journal could simultaneously publish an erratum/corrigendum to correct Author A’s name and issue an Expression of Concern disclosing the authorship dispute with, to date, an insufficient institutional investigation. The Forum agreed that this would be reasonable and could encourage further investigation or resolution of the authorship dispute, since an unresolved Expression of Concern might cause reputational harm to the authors.

Managing approvals for corrections to the literature also relates to effective journal management, but an Expression of Concern is not a correction. The suggestion from the Forum was for the editor to give the institution a firm deadline by which to expand their investigation before the editor contacts a regional or national authority. The editor’s primary responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the scientific literature, which gives editors and publishers the authority to do what is required to uphold public trust in the science.

This case relates to core practice of “Authorship and contributorship” and “Post-publication discussions and corrections.” A closely related core practice is “Journal management.” All the core practices are described under the Core Practices tab on the COPE website and resources are available to describe and promote the best practices for resolving publication ethics issues.

Authorship and contributorship: Clear policies (that allow for transparency around who contributed to the work and in what capacity) should be in place, as well as processes for managing potential disputes.

Post-publication discussions and corrections: Journals must allow debate post publication either on their site, through letters to the editor, or on an external moderated site, such as PubPeer. They must have mechanisms for correcting, revising or retracting articles after publication.

Journal management: A well-described and implemented infrastructure is essential, including the business model, policies, processes and software for efficient running of an editorially independent journal, as well as the efficient management and training of editorial boards and editorial and publishing staff.

Charon Pierson on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee

Institutional comment

This case highlights institutional responsibilities for assessing or investigating research concerns/allegations that may involve potential breaches of responsible research practices. In particular, how institutions manage investigations where one or more of the researchers involved are employed at different institutions.

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2007 (the Code) guides institutions and researchers in responsible research practices. Part B of the Code provides a framework for institutions for dealing with allegations of potential research misconduct. Institutions must ensure that all Investigations are procedurally fair. Institutional investigations apply to only staff and persons associated with the conduct of research under the auspices of the institution. 

For an allegation involving misattribution of authorship, an Institutional investigation will need to consider the author’s contribution by applying relevant authorship criteria from codes, guidelines (e.g. ICMJE) or disciplinary standards. If an institutional investigation is limited in its capacity to fully assess this information because other involved co-authors are employed at different institutions, these limitations should be communicated to the Editor.

On the 1 July 2019, Australian institutional policies and procedures will need to be aligned to the revised NHMRC Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018 (the revised Code). The revised Code will be supported by Guidelines on Responsible Research Practices including, a Guide to Managing and investigating potential breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018 (the Guide). Section 8.1 of the Guide provides for ‘Collaborative research across multiple institutions’ and states:

‘Institutions should consider how preliminary assessments and investigations into potential breaches of the Code are to be conducted for multi-institutional collaborations on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration issues such as the lead institution, where the complaint was lodged, contractual arrangements or where the events occurred. Institutions should cooperate if there is a potential breach of the Code to ensure that only one investigation is conducted. There should be clear communication between all parties throughout the investigation.’

Where investigations may involve a number of institutions, the Guide’s focus on principles of cooperation and communication between institutions when managing a common research concern/allegation is a helpful guide in cases of this nature

Anne Walsh, Acting Director, Office of Research Ethics and Integrity, Division Division of Research and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology (QUT)


Read more on authorship, including latest publication ethics news, in our March 2019 Digest newsletter.